Philip Bobbitt vs. Robert Skidelsky
The Prospect, February 2003
9th January 2003
Your main argument for the policy of regime change in Iraq is that Saddam Hussein has broken the conditions under which he was allowed to stay in power following the Gulf war of 1991. The chief of these-expressed in UNSCR 687-was that Iraq should eliminate, under international inspection, its WMD programmes. But instead of disarming, Iraq, you say, has rearmed. In your view, President Bush has skilfully seized the opportunity opened up by 11th September to enforce, however belatedly, the ceasefire conditions of 1991 which Saddam has violated. Given Saddam's record, this entails "regime change"-by force if necessary.
It is a powerful case, and one which is not open to two objections often advanced against the US's war strategy. The first is that there is no evidence of a link between the Iraqi regime and international terror. The second is that Saddam poses no present threat to the US and its allies, or even his neighbours, such as would justify a pre-emptive war. Your argument does not rely on asserting the negative. It is simply that Saddam has violated the terms of his contract, and cannot be trusted or induced to keep to it in the future. So although he is no threat today, he may be one tomorrow. Thus the only way to achieve the elimination of Iraq's WMDs is to eliminate the regime.
It is this last step which is the non sequitur. I agree with you that Saddam will "seek WMDs to the degree he can get away with it." This makes the case for reinserting the inspection regime, withdrawn in 1998, overwhelming. President Bush deserves credit for reviving the international community's resolve to act on this, backed by the willingness to use force if Hans Blix and his colleagues are obstructed. But what you have not explained any better than your president is why the legitimate aim of eliminating Saddam's capacity for aggression requires the elimination of his regime.
The fact that he is in breach of contract-even one drawn up by President Bush senior-is not a sufficient reason for President Bush junior to make war against him. We need to be sure that the chief aim that UNSCR 687 was designed to secure-the liquidation of his capacity for aggression-has not in fact been achieved, and cannot be achieved without his removal.
Your support for this contention rests on a one-sided assessment of the results of the inspection/sanctions regime in place between 1991 and 1998. You imply that this was a complete failure. But that is not so. In its own dossier of Saddam's crimes, designed to magnify the threat he poses, the British government admitted that, despite Iraq's obstruction of the work of Unscom and the IAEA, the major elements of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear development programmes were, in fact, destroyed or dismantled (Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, September 2002), leaving it with what the former British ambassador to Iraq, Harold Walker, described as a "risible" capacity. Moreover, this degradation of his military assets has affected Saddam's behaviour. He is not a better man, but he is a less bloodthirsty ruler. Why do you believe that the much tougher inspection regime now in place should not shrink his capacity and improve his behaviour still further? What has happened to alter your view, expressed in The Shield of Achilles, that US policy to Iraq should be to insist on "the continuing sanctions against Iraqi rearmament…"?
The imperfect, but far from nugatory, results of the inspection/sanctions system have to be weighed against the incalculable consequences of war. We need to have a reasonable expectation not just that the state of affairs which regime change brings about would be better than the existing state of affairs – for Iraq and the rest of the middle east – but that it would be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition. I would prefer that Saddam remain bottled up in Baghdad than that the middle east be inflamed by Islamic fundamentalism.
The questions you raise at the end of your letter concerning the just and expedient grounds for intervention in the domestic affairs of legally sovereign states are profoundly important. As you have argued, the change in the nature of states demands a change in the security paradigm. The extent to which the so-called Westphalian system, based on nation states, needs to be modified to reflect the reality, and perhaps even more, the consciousness of living in a globalised world is at the heart of the debate on the future of international relations. But the lesson of Iraq is surely that there are no short cuts to making the world a better place. Trigger-happiness is no substitute for patient and costly vigilance, and US leadership in constructing a new world order will be effective only to the extent that America carries its peers, and refrains from inflaming the hatreds of peoples, against which there is no ultimate defence.